Japan abandons bid to make China a key pillar of its foreign policy

China's recent aggressive behavior over disputed islands spurred Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan to turn his back on earlier efforts to rebalance ties with China and the United States.

Greg Baker/AP
Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan spoke at a press conference at the conclusion of the APEC summit in Yokohama, Japan, Nov. 14.

Shaken by China’s ferocious behavior during a recent territorial dispute over a string of uninhabited islets, Japan has abandoned its earlier plans to make ties with Beijing a key pillar of a bold new foreign policy.

Instead, Tokyo is falling back for support on its traditional ally the United States, and seeking succor from other Asian nations who share fresh Japanese doubts about the regional implications of China’s rise.

The novel goal that former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama trumpeted as he led the Democratic Party of Japan to its first electoral victory just 15 months ago – recalibrating Japan’s relationships with Washington and Beijing – is already a fading memory.

“Re-balancing is not on anyone’s agenda now,” says one government official who asked not to be identified. “It’s been tried and it failed. The crisis over the Senkaku islands [known to Chinese as the Diaoyu] has beefed up Japan’s relations with America again.”

Since Mr. Hatoyama’s resignation last June, his successor Naoto Kan “has canceled everything that Hatoyama did” to modify Japan’s two most important foreign relationships, says Masaru Kohno, professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.

Reconsidering relations with China

Yet in the back of Japanese policymakers’ minds lurks the suspicion that they will have to find a way, one day, of improving relations with their biggest trade partner. “Tense relations between Japan and China have negative consequences for the whole of East Asia,” says one Foreign Ministry official. “And we cannot just move out of the region.”

A lot of Japanese citizens don’t find their region very comfortable, however. In a poll published last week by the daily Yomiuri newspaper, 87 percent of respondents said they did not trust China, and almost as many saw Beijing as posing the same military threat as North Korea.

“Japan and China will start talking to each other again at some point,” as they have after previous diplomatic spats, predicts Professor Kohno. “But what is different about this crisis is that it has led people to think that maybe we have to reconsider relations with China, even if it means sacrificing trade.

“A significant number of Japanese are willing to sacrifice some economic well-being for the sake of a more principled position with regard to China,” Kohno adds. “Anti-Chinese feeling is growing more entrenched among Japan’s political class and ordinary people.”

Such feelings were reinforced by China’s detention of four Japanese businessmen as Beijing sought the release of a Chinese fishing captain held by the Japanese prosecutor for allegedly ramming a Coast Guard patrol vessel. Japanese importers complain that China is still holding up exports of rare earths needed by Japanese high-technology manufacturers, two months after the crisis.

“We all realize…China’s true nature,” says the Foreign Ministry official. “Maybe people and politicians have realized the Chinese essence, thanks to this incident.”

Japanese anger at China’s behavior is further fueled by resentment at the way their giant neighbor has overtaken them as the world’s second-largest economy, says Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, deputy head of the ruling DPJ’s policy research board.

“The impact of the Senkaku incident will last because of people's frustrations about structural problems,” Mr. Yamaguchi suggests. “It will take time for the Japanese to get used to accepting the reality that China is No. 2 now, not us.”

What's to be done?

At the same time, points out Taro Kono, a senior member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, “we cannot simply terminate the relationship with China; there is much too much Japanese investment there. The government has to explain to citizens what needs to be done.”

Japanese leaders have been seeking formal talks with their Chinese counterparts for weeks, so far without success. Chinese President Hu Jintao consented to meet Mr. Kan last weekend at the APEC summit in Yokohama for a brief informal conversation, but Chinese officials stressed that this did not mark a return to diplomatic normalcy.

Facing the prospect that China may play rough again in future disputes, says the Foreign Ministry official, “Japan can’t face China alone. We have to step up cooperation with our main ally and with likeminded countries in the region.”

Among the signs of such a policy, foreign diplomats say, are the recent sale of two Japanese nuclear power plants to Vietnam, and Japanese observers attending recent US-South Korean naval exercises for the first time.

“We are deepening our dialog in a quiet way” with Southeast Asian nations, says the government official, building on common concerns about China’s territorial ambitions. Like Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have territorial disputes with Beijing over small islands that may control significant energy reserves.

The South China Sea, the site of these disputes, “could be an element for closer cooperation between Japan and Southeast Asia,” the official adds.

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